The Director of UKZN’s HIV Pathogenesis Programme (HPP), Professor Thumbi Ndung’u, has been awarded a R37 million grant by Gilead Sciences for a project titled: “The FRESH Study: Females Rising through Education, Support and Health (FRESH) Acute HIV Infection Cohort”.
The money is a portion of 12 grants totalling R308 000 000 awarded by Gilead last month in support of HIV cure research. The affiliated projects will be conducted by leading academic institutions, non-profit organisations and community groups worldwide.
They will focus on three key areas of research - translational research, efficacy studies in animal models, and community perspectives of HIV cure.
Ndung’u said he was very excited about the grant because the project it supported also fell in line with objectives of another of his major projects – an Africa Health Research Institute programme titled: “The Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE)”.
‘The study will generate knowledge that will inform vaccine development and HIV cure strategies and, as such, will help to advance African science and fight HIV and AIDS.
‘We will continue a programme that has been in existence for three years, identifying women with acute HIV infection as early as possible following infection and following development of detectable viral load. Study participants are then given antiretroviral therapy immediately. We want to measure the viral reservoir to see where the virus hides and understand why it is so difficult to cure HIV infection and examine whether early treatment can reduce the reservoir to an extent where it becomes easier to eradicate the virus completely.’
Ndung’u said he and his colleagues would also study the transmitted founder virus. ‘We know from previous studies that there’s a bottleneck in transmission such that only a single virus species is transmitted and we want to understand the nature of this early transmitted virus. We will also study immune responses against HIV to understand whether early treatment can improve the quality of immune responses to an extent where the immune responses can then eliminate the virus or control it for a long time without the need of antiretroviral drugs. The long-term goal is to see if early treatment can augment immune responses, which would be important for the development of an effective vaccine or to achieve long-term viral suppression without drugs.’
He described his programme as unique in that it combined social empowerment and basic science. ‘We recruit high risk females, providing them with social services in the form of an empowerment curriculum, thereby reducing their vulnerability to acquiring HIV. Through education and the acquisition of relevant skills, we hope to mitigate some of the circumstances that put them at risk. At the same time, they are screened and if infected, we initiate an intervention to treat and help them but also to answer pressing scientific questions that will lead to a vaccine or a cure.’